The only point on which to take issue with Last Of The Breed, the new two-volume collaboration by Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Ray Price, is its pretentious title. To dub themselves the “last of the breed” in reference to the album’s pitch as a torchbearer for traditional country is an overt knock against a handful of tradition-minded major label stars (Brad Paisley and Josh Turner, to pick the two biggest sellers) and countless independent country acts whose entire artistic personas are reactions to soulless Nashville pop-country (i.e. the rest of the Lost Highway roster), and it simply ignores the fact that genre legends like George Jones, Kris Kristofferson, Bobby Bare, Loretta Lynn, and Dolly Parton are all still alive and making what’s arguably the finest music of their careers. We’re all saddened by the recent losses of Johnny Cash and Buck Owens, guys, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Beyond that small matter of principle, Last Of The Breed is a collection that’s nearly flawless in its execution. Wisely staying away from their own material (with the exception of Price’s “Heartaches By The Number”), the song selection is as much the star here as any of the three performers. Like Southern Culture On The Skids’ recent Countrypolitan Favorites, the chosen songs here speak to the depth of material from country music’s golden era in that there are only a couple of covers of big hit singles, with the remainder of the 22 cuts coming from the rich catalogues of some of the genre’s best songwriters, including Kristofferson, Leon Payne, Harlan Howard, and Cindy Walker. Country hasn’t always been album-oriented—until fairly recently, most albums consisted of two or three obvious radio singles, surrounded by covers of filler songs from the record label’s stock pool and of other artists’ hits—but Last Of The Breed, without a solitary weak spot on its two discs, makes it clear that it could’ve been.
The material is given its proper due by producer Fred Foster, who doesn’t reduce the stone country approach to mere mimicry. Bringing in steel guitarist Buddy Emmons and having The Jordanaires provide harmony vocals aren’t just retro exercises: they’re the right choices for these songs. For their parts, Nelson, Haggard, and Price sound like they had a blast recording the album. What makes it work as more than just a covers album is that each man is a wholly distinctive vocalist, so their interplay (trading verses on “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down,” for instance) gives every song unique character. Haggard’s voice sounds bluesier the more weathered it becomes, and Nelson has made a career out of singing a half-step behind the beat, but Price’s smooth countrypolitan croon is the least diminished of the three, and he takes the lead on the majority of the cuts. Since he’s kept a lower profile of late than Haggard or especially Nelson (who can count this album among the few legitimately good credibility moves he’s made in the last 10 years), the album may draw further well-deserved attention to Price’s earlier work. Beyond that, even without the self-canonization, Last Of The Breed stands as a fine example of why traditional country is a sound worth preserving.